So what went wrong? After all, I had no intention of staying, and I had no intention of liking it (I was young and naïve, bear with me). After one year, I had every intention of going back and staying for a bit longer, maybe a lot longer. I spent the first week homeless, thought, slumming it in the Young and Happy youth hostel. But it was here that I started meeting the people who would help me meet the people I still know today. People who knew of places to stay, people who knew of places to drink, and all of a sudden, as I was walking back up the rue Mouffetard with a stale baguette and a bag full of cheap cheese, I thought – well, this can’t be so bad, can it?
I moved out to Savigny-sur-Orge, about 20 minutes south of Paris, to an up-market yet still hippyish commune of 40 people where I got involved with a French girl who found it hilarious that she was cheating on her boyfriend who was also called Gareth.
I felt compelled to move out within a month, and then shifted to Lagny-sur-Marne to live with two British girls I’d met in a pub, in a house on top of a hill by the river. Neither of them were attached to a Gareth, so it seemed like a great idea. And it really was a lovely place. Yes, it was 30 minutes’ train ride from Gare de l’Est, and it took an hour and a half to get to the university, but it felt like we were in the countryside. It felt like we were… in France!
In 1996, finding accommodation in Paris was easy. In my case, it was down to meeting people and talking to them, but for everyone else, it was as easy as clicking their fingers, and an apartment would appear. Even when I returned after graduation in 1998, it took me two days to find an apartment, albeit a 12 square-metre cubby hole in what looked like a prison block on the rue de Rochechouart, but nevertheless, it was easy. You simply picked up a magazine, or popped down to the American Church, and the city was your oyster. All that changed during the ten years I spent working in the city as a non-student.
By 2003, there were queues in their hundreds snaking around the corner as the morning edition of PAP (a classified ads magazine) came out. Many would turn up with their parents, and their parents’ wage slips, in an attempt to prove they were more financially viable than everyone else. The previous year, I had “won” a horrifically cheap apartment simply by having my name picked out of a hat. So I was lucky. I lived on top of a hill, in a nice village by the river, and every so often, I had to go into Paris. Hard life. We lived like villagers, chatting with the Boulanger (and getting the best baguettes as a result), wishing shopkeepers ‘bon appetit’ simply because it was nearly lunchtime and time to close, and getting up before 9am (yes, before 9am) for the market on a Friday. Our weekends involved partying in Fontainebleau or Paris itself; our weeks involved watching French game shows, cooking, eating and discovering that the French you speak at university is not the French you speak in France. We learned quickly.
Paris III, or the Sorbonne Nouvelle, was less idyllic. A 60s concrete block in the south of the city proved to be an enigma wrapped in a mystery. Negotiating the labyrinthine machinations of French administration proved to be a particular feature of my ten years in France, and my first encounter with it would prove educational, at least. When I registered at Leicester University, it was a doddle. Stand in line, get this stamped, next desk, get that stamped, get a card, have a drink. Easy. In Paris, it involved going to several offices in which large, stern women sat in front of computers, refusing to acknowledge your presence. When they finally tore their eyes away from the screen, they claimed never to have heard of you, your university, or the person you were looking for. Imagine my shock when I was informed “no, we don’t take students from Leicester University, you must have come to the wrong university.” Helpful.
We eventually tracked down our Professor, a certain Monsieur Demorris. Or should I say, the elusive Monsieur Demorris. After a couple of days, we heard news that Monsieur Demorris had been spotted, and we camped outside his office.
“Who are you?” he asked, not politely.
“We’re your students from Leicester University.”
“I don’t take students from Leicester University”, he replied not politely, before noticing some French students, and beckoning them into his office. “Wait there”, he ordered.
So we waited an hour or so before he came out and asked again: “Who are you?” and continuing to insist that he didn’t take students from Leicester University. Of course, we were pronouncing it wrong, and we were meant to say “Less-ess-stair”, which is apparently the French pronunciation for Leicester. Our fault. As always.
We were then informed that we had to sign up for courses, but because we hadn’t been able to track down Monsieur Demorris, we were late, and had missed the deadline. Therefore, we had to “beg” for courses from each individual department, which meant tracking them down individually over the course of a week, and pleading. Each department told us off like naughty schoolchildren, wagging their fingers at us saying “you won’t get through life like this”.
And so it was that I learnt a vital lesson about living in France. Administrators rule the country, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Stern women in flowery dresses and cardigans run the country, and decide what happens – and what doesn’t happen. The only way to cope with the overwhelming volume of administration and the overwhelming number of roadblocks was simply to take it in your stride – just as the French do. Being told off is just a part of French life that schoolchildren assimilate at the earliest age. Except that in France, it doesn’t stop when you leave school. In the early noughties, I was hauled into the bank for a dressing down in front of about twenty customers for having gone overdrawn by a few cents. “You pay your bills first, Mr Cartman. And then you eat.” I was told by a stern- looking woman in a diatribe that seemed to last an hour. Two weeks later, however, when she apologised for the administrative error that took me overdrawn, the apology took place behind closed doors.
One of our French tutors said “the trouble with you English is that you live life in a bubble – everything is done for you. In France, you have to do everything for yourself.” And in a way, she was right. In England, life was relatively simple. In France, it’s complicated. Live with it, she said. So we did. And once you learn to live with the inevitable roadblocks that French administration throws up, you start to enjoy the French experience more. You start to appreciate the finer things in life, such as good wine, good food, and good company. After a day at the Prefecture waiting to be told that you hadn’t provided a good enough photocopy of your birth certificate and that it hadn’t been translated by a certified translator (yes, this particular demand broke European laws back in 1996 as well), there’s nothing better than a glass of Chablis, a salade Nicoise and a crème brulee outside your local café.
By the time I left Paris in 2007, nothing had changed in that respect. Forms still had to be filled in, photocopies still had to be perfect and birth certificates still had to be translated by one of just three people in the whole city, all of whom were always on holiday. But what had changed was something that my year abroad had left me completely unprepared for. In 1996, I learnt the values of patience, of a life lived slowly and lived well. I learned it from the French people who were living their lives slowly, and living them well.
By 2007, even the French were committing what would have been labelled crimes in 1996. They were drinking coffee in the street, they were eating more from McDonalds than ever before, and despite the 35-hour labour law, they were working longer hours than ever before. Perhaps it was my graduation from student to employee that highlighted this shift, but the creeping “anglo-saxonisation” of French life (their words, not mine) was not just an oft-voiced fear, it was a reality being lived out in front of my eyes. My year abroad made me cast aside my naïve British teenager ways and appreciate the French way of life. But as the years went on, the Parisians were trying to live their lives like the English and the Americans. Quickly. And that left me cutting a rather strange figure – a foreigner who longed for the way the inhabitants of this peculiar country used to live. So imagine, when I applied for a new French ID card a few months before leaving, and having queued all day only to be told that I did not have a mysterious new document I had never heard of, and that the only next available appointment was in two months’ time – I smiled.
Some things never change.
Vive la France.
About the author: Gareth Cartman returned to the UK in 2007 to work in marketing with Aylesbury College, and is trying to teach his 2-year-old daughter French so that she won’t have as many problems when she lands in Paris at the age of 18.